China recently issued its first detailed policy guidelines on dealing with its exploding HIV/AIDS epidemic, including requiring local governments to offer free drugs and testing.
The cabinet, the State Council, issued a statute on the prevention and control of AIDS which spells out the responsibilities of governments at all levels and the rights of carriers, according to the Council's website.
Most importantly, international experts said, the government now requires free testing be provided to anyone who wants it and that their identities be protected-a significant step forward in stopping the spread of the disease.
Those who seek testing should be given tests for free and no department could reveal carriers' identities or personal information without their permission, according to the guidelines on the website.
"That is encouraging," said Joel Rehnstrom, UNAIDS' country coordinator, adding that counseling should also be provided.
"That might encourage people who suspect they have the disease to come forward and get tested so they will not spread the disease to others."
Local governments above the county-level must provide free anti- HIV/AIDS drugs for rural AIDS patients and underprivileged urban patients, according to the guidelines, which Rehnstrom said were the most comprehensive so far.
Localities must also offer free treatment and consultations on prevention of mother-baby infection to pregnant women and new mothers, the statute says. While some heavily infected areas already provide free drugs and treatment, it was still not a nationwide practice.
AIDS orphans should receive free tuition and be exempt from paying fees, including the cost of books, while those officials who cause the disease to spread in any way will be punished, the guidelines say.
The rules will go into effect as of March 1.
They come as the government grapples with how to stop the further spread of the epidemic which shows no signs of abating, with 70,000 new infections recorded in 2005.
China has around 650,000 known cases, down from a government estimate in 2003 of 840,000, according to findings of a study released by China's health ministry, the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS last month.
But UN and Chinese officials warned that the lower figure was due to an overestimate last time, and that there was by no means a slowdown in the growth of new infections.
Some of the points in the guidelines appear to address UN recommendations that China encourages people to get tested and provide free testing services as only 10 percent of its HIV carriers are believed to be aware they are infected.
Growing awareness cannot tackle the disease alone, the government said in the guidelines, adding that "other relevant organisations" and individuals who promote AIDS-prevention awareness should receive encouragement and support.
NGO workers have been detained in the past and still must operate clandestinely on projects as harmless as delivering money and toys.
But in a sign the government is still uncomfortable with giving NGOs too much power, the guidelines do not identify some of the most active NGOs for protection, only naming government- linked agencies, and does not spell out what actions against them are prohibited.
It remains to be seen what weight these regulations would carry, Rehnstrom said, but he praised China for issuing the guidelines.
"In terms of a response to AIDS, a good policy and regulatory environment is very important. And we're seeing the pieces falling into place," Rehnstrom said.